If A Tree Falls is the kind of in your face indie flick that excels vastly stylistically but falls short when it comes to actual content. Director Philip Carrer definitely had a certain vision in mind and it comes across brilliantly throughout If A Tree Falls, a vision that evokes a certain sense of nostalgia for grindhouse films and drive-in theatres where over the top violence and cheesy sound scores were ripe. Many scenes are strongly influenced by the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the bright lights and a piercing score. Unfortunately the plot is lacking anything substantial and offers few redeeming qualities. If A Tree Falls is not that a bad film, it’s actually enjoyable if taken for as the indie horror that it is, but it’s not for everyone.
The plot, if you can call it that, is very simple and revolves around a group of four mid-twenty something year olds who decide to road trip into the Quebec wilderness (that’s in Canada). Siblings, Brad and Lisa, along with their pothead friend, Will and their sardonic gal-pal, Lisa, decide to take a break from the woes of life and get away for a relaxing weekend. Somewhere along the road they decide it would be a brilliant idea to camp out for the night where nobody else can see them. Yep, real good plan. Naturally, everything goes horribly awry as an eccentric band of pantyhose-masked murderers methodically torture the gang of campers one by one.
The beginning of the film attempts to set up the characters’ back-stories, and really tries hard to display the shadow that they each walk with. Brad has gone through a bad breakup, Lisa is ‘preggers’, Will is a failure, and Lisa is just weird.
Aside from Brad, the attempts to provide character depth feel dry and empty. The quartet joke around in a diner before they set out for their trip, and the dialogue is actually quote funny, but as they continue their shenanigans and reveal the drama in their lives they slowly become less affable. Any film with a grindhouse aesthetic, in my opinion, should not work so hard to develop deep character relationships.
Once the killers enter into the fray of things, there is not much left for the plot, but this is actually where the semi-story works best, save the big finale. The band of killers look quite grotesque with their torn pantyhose masks. Skin protrudes out of the nylon stockings to deform their facial features, cranking up the disturbing factor several notches. On top of the masks, their odd homo-punk clothing makes them interesting villains, to say the least. Particularly creepy (or funny) is the fat one with the mesh tank top.
Once the killers arrive there is a lot of senseless violence solely for the sake of violence. This is why I say this is not a movie for everyone. It’s far from a gore-porn flick because there’s almost no blood throughout the torture scenes. Most of the violence takes place off-screen or is violent but not in the “I’m gonna make you bleed” way but more so in the “I’m gonna hold your face over a burning flame for a few seconds” way. The minimal gore makes the final scene of a victim’s bowels oozing onto asphalt all the more shocking. The conclusion is quite baffling, it’s hard to place it in relation to the rest of the film, and it will either have you loving it or saying, “what the hell did I just watch?”
Well-done editing and a penetrating soundtrack establish the mood throughout the film. Some tense moments arise from the visual queues, and the sounds matches the sketchy cuts perfectly. The high-pitch droning pervasive soundtrack creates an uneasy atmosphere that will either be seen as over the top, or flawless. Some of the editing can be confusing, one scene in particular, and it’s the turning point of the film, has a strong reel jump, and though it doesn’t look bad it just makes it nearly impossible to see what’s going on unless you’re watching on a big screen.
Now there doesn’t need to be an Inception-like plot in every film, but my biggest gripe with the film is that the plot does not match the style of the film at all. Aesthetically speaking, the film looks great. In fact it’s a refreshing look that you don’t see much in modern horror. Overexposed and extremely bright lights make If A Tree Falls very different in contrast to the standard as-pitch-black-as-possible visual trend in indie horror. The brightness is interlaced with roughly cut scenes, jumping reels and blurry camera work that add to anxiety.
The faux-grindhouse aesthetic is done tastefully, it’s not over the top and it doesn’t look like he’s trying to emulate Tarintino and Rodriguez. You really feel the 70s come out of the directing and editing work. Unfortunately, the content doesn’t match the grindhouse look. This indie flick takes from other movies like The Strangers, Ils (Them), and even Eden Lake, about arbitrary masked strangers attacking defenseless victims (which has become quite the popular sub-genre). This storyline works within that subgenre, but the visuals don’t add much to it, making it an off-kilter combination.
In my mind, a film that attempts to emulate the chic of old-school B-grade horror should follow through with a plot that is equally cheesy and fun. If A Tree Falls is loaded with attempted heavy subject matter, and for the most part it seems unnecessary. The story in If A Tree Falls is not fun, and while it may be cheesy, it’s not quite the slice of cheddar they were going for. Carrer is clearly a talented director, editor, and producer, and I hope next time he finds content more suitable to his style.
The vision is there, the look is good, and I will without a doubt be following Carrer’s future projects. I hope next time the scripts and acting crew will live up to the standard set by the editing and camera work. If A Tree Falls is a decent indie flick that is best watched on a big TV on a rainy night. Though this may not be an astonishing film, one thing that’s certain is Philip Carrer is a director to keep your eye on.